© Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Tony Hall: We need a big debate about the BBC’s future

The former director general explains why public service broadcasting remains essential, but the rich should pay more for it
December 8, 2022

What do we want from the BBC in its second century? Last time its charter was renewed in 2016, the BBC had the financial settlement imposed before the discussions about its role took place. Today, there’s time to get it right and engage licence fee payers in a sensible way. A new charter is still four years off, but that great debate should start now.

Where should it begin? The bedrock of any democracy is an active and informed citizenship. This is already at risk—and just wait for deepfake technology to become widespread. The very nature of what is real will become open to question. In some respects, it already has. What will happen to trust in our politics and our society?

In the era of the internet and social media, I believe that trusted and impartial news services are needed more than ever. Every person, rich or poor, wherever they live, whatever age they are, has a fundamental right to information on which they can base their lives. In the noise and mayhem of the world, they should be able to find out what is actually happening. This is why the BBC is necessary now and in the future.

It’s also why the idea of impartiality is so important. The notion has come under fire recently from some who find it overly constraining and maybe old-fashioned, but I find it energising. It means journalists working without fear or favour to give us the unvarnished facts of a situation. In other words, access to news as near to truth as anyone can get. It’s then up to us to make of it what we will.

The pandemic has underscored these arguments. Research by the regulator Ofcom consistently shows that high-quality, trustworthy and accurate news is one of the most important aspects of public service broadcasting. It found that, in the first week of the pandemic, more than 80 per cent of people said they trusted information from public service channels, compared with 30 per cent of people who trusted online news organisations. The research service Enders Analysis makes the point even more firmly: “the BBC is the most trusted and favoured news source in the UK and the world.” Maintaining that trust will be crucial, especially among a younger generation who may be sceptical about traditional news.

The BBC is both local and global. These are two enormous journalistic strengths

The pool of information that people have access to should be rich, varied and free for everyone, not locked behind a paywall. Programmes and services that reflect who we are, give expression to our lives, bring us together in joy or in sorrow, are an essential part of our culture, and should be available equally to all. This is a profoundly democratic ideal.

The BBC is both local and global. These are two enormous journalistic strengths that no other organisation can offer. Local radio is a too often underappreciated part of the BBC’s output and it may be an area where the market increasingly fails us.

We all know the difficult context that local journalists are operating within. Some parts of the country still have local newspapers, some do not. Some local newspapers have found a new model for carrying on, many have not. In broadcasting, the genuinely local commercial stations have now for the most part been merged into larger entities. This has important ramifications for reporting on local councils, courts and so on. 

A few years ago, the BBC set up the Local Democracy Reporting Service to tackle this. Though this initiative, the BBC pays for journalists who can work for any local news outlet—you could call it a public-private partnership. At present, the scheme has 165 journalists with 1,000 individual news outlets signed up. They’ve syndicated more than 273,000 stories. This sort of scheme for working in partnership with other local media and community groups is also going to be more important in the future.

And then there’s the global. Since September, we’ve seen the BBC’s Persian service reports on the brave demonstrations by young women in Iran. We’ve seen powerful and shocking reminders of the human consequences of global warming on the people of Somalia. The BBC’s ability to bring all this to our homes depends on its worldwide reach, and that in turn depends on the World Service. 

When George Osborne was chancellor, I asked him to invest an extra £85m a year in the World Service with the aim of taking the BBC’s global audience to half a billion people a week. Think of the consequences for the UK’s soft power, I argued. He said yes without hesitation and, to my astonishment, to the full amount. It was the biggest increase in the World Service’s budget since the Second World War—a rise of around 30 per cent. 

The result was—among other things—new services in Africa and India, on television, radio and the internet, and a rise in audience numbers to just under that half a billion figure each week. What struck me was not just how in India, for example, we could broadcast in many more languages, but how we could be more ambitious in our reporting. We started covering women’s issues, subjects avoided by the local media. 

In Africa, we were able to expand the services offered too but also used the new resources for investigative reporting, in one case painstakingly uncovering the real murderers of a group of innocent women and children in Cameroon. When Jeremy Hunt—now the chancellor—was foreign secretary, he too was driven by the idea of increasing the UK’s global soft power through the World Service, but he wanted an even more ambitious plan to reach a billion people each week. He was moved on before he could win the case, but the plan is still there.

Away from the journalism, there is another key justification for a publicly funded BBC into the 21st century: the important role it plays in our culture. One of the most expensive dramas the BBC funded in my time there was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Hollywood tried and failed to make it into a series after adapting the first book. But a talented team based in Cardiff made something extra-ordinary and compelling out of one of the great British fantasies of our generation. 

Also great was a drama that’s just played out on our screens—Sherwood, a very British story based around the continuing resonance of the miners’ strike. Storytelling like this—and the list could go on and on—helps us to define who we are. It starts with our needs and our stories in mind, not what will go down well on an international market.

Of course, the BBC’s cultural role includes education—and educational programmes can often be in the mainstream schedules. Four years ago, Blue Planet II showed the horrific damage caused by plastic pollution in the oceans. Over 14m people saw the first episode, making it the year’s most-watched British TV show, and it helped mobilise public opinion against single-use plastics. 

In the first weeks of the Covid crisis, the BBC became Britain’s largest-ever classroom. We worked at high speed to set up an online learning programme for children who could no longer go to school. Two-thirds of primary school students and 77 per cent of secondary school pupils used the resources of BBC Bitesize during lockdowns; just under three million pupils visited the website each week. The fact that all this could be set up at such speed shows the value of a media organisation of scale that has education as one of its prime purposes.

In more normal times, before Covid, I lost count of the number of parents who told me how much they valued the CBeebies channel. What they needed was content that they could trust, of quality, free of advertising and made for British audiences. The BBC’s services for children have also been at the forefront of adapting the way the broadcaster reaches online audiences. Bringing first-rate content to all young people—free of charge, to help them get the education they deserve—is going to be an important component of the organisation’s offer for the future.

Poorer people should pay less for public service broadcasting—and the better off should pay more

Finally, there is the BBC’s role in the future economic growth of the UK. In 2019, the creative industries constituted nearly 6 per cent of the economy and the second-biggest growth area in that sector was film, television and other media. The accounting firm Deloitte estimates that by 2030 there could be four million jobs in the creative industries. This is an area of real global competitive strength, and the BBC lies at the heart of it. 

The MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee observed in their 2021 report on public service broadcasting that while streaming services are investing more in production in the UK, their output is not comparable to the BBC’s. It noted: “In 2019, PSBs (public service broadcasters) provided approximately 32,000 hours of UK-originated content whereas Netflix and Amazon Prime combined provided 164 hours.” 

The BBC is the single biggest investor in original UK content. Every pound it invests generates more than £2.60. The BBC works with 14,000 suppliers spending around £2.4bn a year; a majority of these companies are small- and medium-sized enterprises. Half of the money is spent in the nations and regions. 

The impact has been real. In the last 20 years, Cardiff has become a world-class hub for drama production and special effects based in part on skills learned during the making of successive seasons of Doctor Who. Since 2012, when the BBC opened up its studios in Roath Lock in Cardiff Bay, the city’s creative sector has grown by over 40 per cent. 

Back at the Beeb: Hall addresses reporters on his return to the corporation as director general in 2013 © Oli Scarff / Getty Images Back at the Beeb: Hall addresses reporters on his return to the corporation as director general in 2013 © Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Back at the Beeb: Hall addresses reporters on his return to the corporation as director general in 2013 © Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Bristol, home to the Natural History Unit, another world-class asset, has become the base for other companies working in that genre. In Media City, Salford, the number of digital or creative businesses has grown by 70 per cent since the BBC moved there. Talent is everywhere, not just in London and the southeast.

Sometimes the BBC’s role is to offer services the public need that the market has failed to provide. But to confine it to that would be to ignore one of its important functions. The BBC also makes markets. At its best, it is an innovator. Reed Hastings, the boss of Netflix, once said the BBC’s pioneering work on iPlayer blazed the trail for what he was later to do. Nowadays, that role could be in immersive technology, including virtual reality. The UK is strong in this area, but has many small companies who need help showcasing their work and presenting it to broader audiences. Could the BBC help this sector to grow? 

Can it continue to make markets through innovation in its programming? The way the BBC has helped build interest in women’s sport is a great example of what’s possible. Look now at the coverage on TV, radio and online of women’s football, rugby, cricket and more. Not only are the teams doing very well, but giving them airtime has also led to more women taking up sport. 

The BBC can bring people together to work on projects that benefit the public. The UK ranks fourth in the world in the latest global innovation index, behind Switzerland, the United States and Sweden. Our broadcasters can do even more to support creative entrepreneurship—and that includes Channel 4, with its remit intact and held in some form of public ownership. It’s provided a launchpad for hundreds of companies to grow their business and must continue to do so. 

The BBC is a creative organisation and, as such, needs to take risks and deal with the inevitable failure that sometimes will be the consequence. It must back talented people with ideas. A few years ago, an amazing woman was spotted doing a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was promptly commissioned to make Fleabag. From there, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has made an incredible global career. 

Talk to people in the music industry and they will tell you about the important role the BBC plays in giving airtime to new bands. BBC Music Introducing is a service that allows a group to upload tracks which a local radio station can play. If a song takes off, it can make its way to national radio—the artists can even end up on the Introducing stage at Glastonbury. That’s how Ed Sheeran started out. 

There are careers to be made backstage, too. When I returned to the BBC in 2013, I wanted to grow the number of apprenticeships. We went from just tens of people to over 2 per cent of the workforce in a matter of three or four years. We all know how important finding and nurturing the next generation is. And so many people who have gone on to be successful elsewhere point to the BBC as the place it all began. 

We will continue to need public service broadcasting for information to inform our democracy

If I think about the UK economy in 2030—seven years’ time—I know that the creative industries will be one of its great strengths. We are already attracting a lot of inward investment to make films, TV and immersive content. What matters above all is that the amount and value of that content grows.

We will continue to need public service broadcasting for information to inform our democracy as well as for our culture. Above all, we need a big debate about the sort of media we want. We need to define what we want from the BBC and other public service broadcasters and then work out how to fund it. It’s a nonsense to do it the other way around.

On the subject of funding, I offer three other thoughts. First, we should set up a consultative body to help the government of the day work out what is the right amount of public funding the BBC should receive. I know—and more’s the pity—that ministers will never give up the power of setting the amount, but at least make the advice public and led by data. 

Second, we should find a way—a reformed licence fee or a household levy—that is fairer. Poorer people should pay less and the better off more. And for all the talk of an internet-only future, there are still eight million people, mostly those who are poorer, live alone, have a disability or are over 75, who rely on TV as it comes now—through Freeview.

Seven years ago, I had the privilege of introducing a screening of a BBC film adaptation of Testament of Youth, based on the memoir by Vera Brittain. The guest of honour was Shirley Williams. It’s not often you have to talk about a mother in front of her eminent daughter. When I finished, Williams got to her feet and told us that the UK has two great assets that are recognised worldwide: “the first is Shakespeare. The second is the BBC.” It is extraordinary that the broadcaster’s original mission—to inform, educate and entertain—should feel as relevant today as it did 100 years ago. The BBC was set up to ensure that everyone would have access to the best. In the midst of necessary change, that mission is ageless.